Reflecting on Sputnik:  Linking the Past, Present, and Future of Educational Reform
A symposium hosted by the Center for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education

Download this Paper
(Microsoft Word)

SPUTNIK AND SCIENCE EDUCATION

F. James Rutherford
American Association for the Advancement of Science

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center or the National Research Council. The paper has not been reviewed by the National Research Council. It is posted with permission of the author, 12 January 1998

Symposium Main Page

 

 Current Paper Sections
Introduction
Context
Successes
Lessons

 

Other Papers
J. Myron Atkin
Rodger W. Bybee
George DeBoer
Peter Dow
Marye Anne Fox
John Goodlad
Jeremy Kilpatrick
Glenda T. Lappan
Thomas T. Liao
F. James Rutherford

 

 

Center's Home Page

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Symposium Main Page

 

 Current Paper Sections
Introduction
Context
Successes
Lessons

 

Other Papers J. Myron Atkin
Rodger W. Bybee
George DeBoer
Peter Dow
Marye Anne Fox
John Goodlad
Jeremy Kilpatrick
Glenda T. Lappan
Thomas T. Liao
F. James Rutherford

 

Center's Home Page

 

Back to the Top

 

Email questions or comments to csmeeinq@nas.edu

Introduction

In this century, no two pieces of news so shocked America’s world view of itself as the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1942 and, a mere 15 years later, the successful launching of the Soviet space craft on October 5, 1957. Each provoked an enormous national response, the one leading ultimately to the Allied victory in World War II and the other to U.S. dominance in space. In each instance, the recovery from humiliation to vindication was surprisingly short, although, as we know, the political, economic, and technological ramifications of WWII and the space race, still being played out, have profoundly changed life in this country and much of the world.

Nationwide reform efforts in education followed both of these trials by fire. But there are some important differences between them that are worth bearing in mind as we look at the science education reform efforts following in Sputnik’s wake. Where the post-war/pre-sputnik educational concerns were largely demographic—first the colleges trying to accommodate returning veterans, the likes of which had not been seen before, then quickly the schools doing the same for the young baby boomers. In contrast, the post-Sputnik concerns were curricular, focusing on what was being taught and how, rather than who was being taught. Another difference between the two eras was the assignment of blame. The military and the politicians received the blame for Pearl Harbor, not educators; in the Sputnik instance, the finger of blame quickly and sternly pointed at the schools. The third difference has to do with the public perception of the outcomes of the two reform movements: the first is almost unanimously regarded as a great success, a milestone in the history of American education not unlike that of the Morrill Act in the last century, while the second is widely regarded as having failed. I think that perception is only half right.

My remarks will focus on the Sputnik-associated science education reform efforts of the late 1950s and the 1960s, and argue that in fact they have left us a legacy of great value should we choose to draw on it in the current science education reform effort. (Parenthetically, the current effort was, like its predecessor, catalyzed by external matters—in this case the ascendancy of Japan in world trade—and quickly led to the perception that somehow our faltering industrial performance was in large measure the fault of the schools.) First I will propose a context for judging what happened, and then list what are, I believe, some of the major successes of the Sputnik reform effort.

Context

There is little to be gained by trying to arrive at global judgments on such matters as the overall success or failure of the Sputnik-era reforms. Education is simply too complex an enterprise for that—decisions in our disaggregated non-system are made by too many different persons in too many different places on too many different things at too many different times. Moreover, we lack the necessary conditions for deciding the matter on that scale: clear criteria for what constitutes success and failure and a reliable way for collecting valid evidence. (One can perhaps forgive the cynic for (spuriously) claiming that since the fact of the Soviets entering space before us was taken as evidence of the failure of the schools, our beating them to the moon can be taken (equally spuriously) as evidence of the success of the reforms.) What we can do is look at what happened with an eye to what seems to have contributed significantly to our ability to improve science and mathematics education in the schools.

Another important circumstance to keep in mind is that these spurts of reform activity, no matter what their motivation, are but part of a larger-scale movement reaching back at least to the first decade of this century—one might say, in science education, from John Dewey to James Conant and Vannevar Bush to today’s White House and Congress. It is not as though everything remained placid in education between our bouts of reform, or that the schools were ever altogether free of criticism. Indeed, those of us teaching in the public schools before Sputnik remember well that Arthur Bestor’s Educational Wastelands, Albert Lynn’s Quackery in the Public Schools, and Rudolf Flesch’s Why Johnny Can’t Read were best sellers. Efforts to change education fluctuate in intensity but rarely disappear altogether for any length of time, although widespread public attention may only surface in response to a proclaimed crisis. It is interesting to note in that regard that both the Illinois Mathematics Project, the funding of the Physical Science Study Committee, and NSF-supported teacher institutes all were underway before Sputnik.

Dissatisfaction with schools not only waxes and wanes, it is sometimes general and sometimes local, and it is often domain specific (reading and mathematics head the list, of course). It seems to take a crisis—not some general move to “get ahead of the curve”—to mobilize nationwide action. But while the crisis occupies stage center, behind the scenes a set of persistent issues has been the focus of the reform struggles in this century. These issues came into play in the case of Sputnik and science education:

  • Should, progressive, child-centered education or basic, discipline-centered education have precedence in the schools?

  • Should priority be given to building the nation’s scientific capability or to creating nationwide science literacy?

  • Who should decide what students are supposed to learn: the school community (teachers, school administrators and trustees, parents) or university scholars (scientists, mathematicians, and engineers, in our case)?

  • What should the balance be between the stability that comes with maintaining traditional content and practices and the discombobulation that comes with the introduction of major changes?

The point of this brief—and altogether inadequate—commentary is merely to emphasize that the Sputnik episode as it bears on science education cannot be understood well in isolation from the educational context in which it is embedded. The same could have been said (but was not, for lack of time) in regard to the science context, for the growing importance of science and its applications (especially the changing relationship between science and government) has brought the question of the place of science in the schools to the forefront. Fortunately, there are excellent published accounts dealing with one aspect or another of all of this including those of John Dewey, Lawrence Cremin, John Goodlad, Richard Elmore, and Peter Dow, on the education side, and, on the science side, those of Vannevar Bush, Hunter Dupree, and Dorothy Nelkin.

Successes


[Home] [Directories] [Publications] [Search] [Site Map] [About] [President's Corner] [Employment] [Browse] [Feedback]

 Copyright 1997 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.